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Happy Valentine’s Day from Suburbivore

February 14, 2012

Today is Valentine’s Day, which depending on your current relationship status and level of cynicism can be reinterpreted as “Hallmark Day™” or “Singles Awareness Day,” considering that the holiday (like many holidays) has been largely taken over as a means of selling you something.  This is the big day for cut rose sales, which I’ve talked about a bit before, but it’s also a major holiday for candy makers, chocolate producers, and jewelers.  More than 36 million heart-shaped boxes of chocolate1 and some $3 billion dollars or more in of jewelry2 are expected to be sold this year in America, and considering how all of these things are coded in our culture as feminine it’s kind of depressing, if not necessarily surprising, to find the jokes that usually circulate about a month later regarding “Steak and a Blowjob Day,” the day in which the women in the relationship are supposed to make up to their men for all the romantic bullshit they had to go through and spend money on a month ago.

I’ve mentioned before on this blog that our view on foods is not completely objective.  Cultural norms dictate how we view specific foods, frequently based on who is perceived to be the primary consumer of them.  For example, Big Macs™ are considered “bad” foods for the ostensible reason that they are unhealthy (and they are).  However, similar scorn is not heaped on those frilly Starbucks drinks with calorie counts from refined sugar and whipped cream that can easily put McDonalds’ meals to shame.  Healthiness is not our core motivator of cultural judgment calls on food so much as the social status of who we perceive as being the primary consumer of that food; because those who eat McDonalds’ are more commonly lower-class and those who drink Starbucks are upper- or middle-class, one is to be denigrated and the other glossed over or ignored3.  This is a trend that has existed for a long time in America, where Italian food, now frequently a staple component of typical American fare, was once viewed as obviously unhealthy with all its strong spices and smells – and more importantly, the fact that such spices and smells came from poor neighborhoods in places like New York, where recent southern European immigrants lived shortly after their arrival4.

This is relevant to Valentine’s Day because chocolate is viewed as a food that primarily women desire, despite the fact that 50% of those heart-shaped boxes are going from women to men1.  Meat in general, and red meat in particular, is viewed as masculine food; hence the “Steak and a Blowjob Day” joke.  The manly meat meal is all the better if there are no vegetables present save perhaps some grilled onions or a baked potato, since vegetables are coded as feminine or girly (and God help you if you order a salad).

American culture originally descended from that of England, a country that has long held a tradition of beef being a high-status food.  Although American consumption of chicken surpassed that of beef some time ago, we still hold dearly to the cultural idea of the cowboy and the steak as icons of Americana in general and male America in particular.  This is unfortunate, considering that the current availability of meat in America far outstrips healthy levels of consumption.  Doctors frequently urge the eating of less red meat for heart health, and the only reason the USDA doesn’t do the same is because when a government committee last issued a statement urging people to reduce their consumption of meat to improve their health (the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, 1977), the beef industry went ballistic.  It has been badgering the government into increasingly euphemistic statements ever since, such as “choose lean meats”, “limit use of animal fats”, or “. . . make choices that are lean, low-fat, or fat-free.”  Advice such as “eat less meat” rather than vague statements about making the right choices conflict with the assigned mission of the USDA, which is to basically sell agricultural products to the people of the U.S.5  We eat far too much meat in the United States, with meat prices held artificially low by the ready availability of cheap, government-subsidized corn6, and far too much of it is of terrible quality specifically because it is primarily based on corn.

The omega-3 fatty acids that food companies are slipping into everything from eggs to energy drinks, and the reason why fish pills exist (for those of us who want the health benefits of eating fish but can’t stand the taste) would normally be found in meat if the animals were allowed to graze6.   Omega-3 fatty acids, specifically alpha-linolenic acid or ALA for short, are produced from phytosterols in green plants.  Cattle and chickens convert it from grass during digestion just as fish would normally get it from plankton – or in predatory fish like salmon, from eating fish that eat the plankton.  Corn-fed meat also loads the animal’s tissues up with fat from the extra calories present in corn6, so even though chickens and pigs, for example, have been bred to be leaner than they were in previous generations, the effects of this improved breeding are somewhat lost in a sea of corn calories present in meat.

A corn diet does produce a nice marbling and tender meat.  However, the recognizable costs in human health and hidden environmental costs in oil, water, and carbon emissions are not worth a diet anywhere near as heavy in meat as we have become accustomed to.  In this household meat is generally not the centerpiece of the meal but an ingredient (if it is present), and what meat we do eat is grass-fed or at least grass-finished and organic, whenever possible.

But that’s for normal, everyday meals.  Meat centerpieces such as steaks are great as celebration food!  Since they’re rare meals for special occasions, it’s easier to spend the money on buying so much good-quality meat.  Rather than spending money on trinkets like jewelry or perishable gifts like roses, I’ve always preferred turning to food to celebrate the holidays; even when I didn’t have time to cook as much, Mark and I usually celebrated Valentine’s Day by me bringing him home some chocolates and then both of us going out for a good dinner.

So here’s a Valentines’ Day meal plan for both men and women, great for a private meal for two or for sharing with family and friends, depending on how much food you make.  There’s little to show how much you love someone better than making a meal for them. . . and as a bonus, no reservations are needed.

Dinner: Pan-Seared Ribeye, Baked Potato, and Brussels Sprouts with Bleu Cheese and Bacon

Alton Brown’s Pan-Seared Ribeye

(From the Food Network site, available here)

Ingredients

  • 1 boneless rib eye steak, 1 1/2-inch thick (preferably grass-fed and organic)
  • Canola oil to coat
  • Kosher salt and ground black pepper

Directions

Place a 10 to 12-inch cast iron skillet in oven and heat oven to 500 degrees. Bring steak(s) to room temperature.

When oven reaches temperature, remove pan and place on range over high heat. Coat steak lightly with oil and season both sides with a generous pinch of salt. Grind on black pepper to taste.

Immediately place steak in the middle of hot, dry pan. Cook 30 seconds without moving. Turn with tongs and cook another 30 seconds, then put the pan straight into the oven for 2 minutes. Flip steak and cook for another 2 minutes. (This time is for medium rare steaks. If you prefer medium, add a minute to both of the oven turns.)

Remove steak from pan, cover loosely with foil, and rest for 2 minutes. Serve whole or slice thin and fan onto plate.

Alton Brown’s Baked Potato

(From the Food Network site, available here)

Ingredients

  • 2 or more large russet potatoes
  • Canola oil to coat
  • Kosher salt

Directions

Heat oven to 350 degrees and position racks in top and bottom thirds. Wash potato (or potatoes) thoroughly with a stiff brush and cold running water. Dry, then using a standard fork poke 8 to 12 deep holes all over the spud so that moisture can escape during cooking. Place in a bowl and coat lightly with oil. Sprinkle with kosher salt and place potato directly on rack in middle of oven. Place a baking sheet on the lower rack to catch any drippings.

Bake 1 hour or until skin feels crisp but flesh beneath feels soft. Serve by creating a dotted line from end to end with your fork, then crack the spud open by squeezing the ends towards one another. It will pop right open. But watch out, there will be some steam.

NOTE: If you’re cooking more than 4 potatoes, you’ll need to extend the cooking time by up to 15 minutes.

Brussels Sprouts with Bleu Cheese and Bacon

(Modified from a recipe from the Pacific Coast Farmer’s Market Association)

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 pounds Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved
  • 2-3 ounces bleu cheese, crumbled
  • 4 thick slices bacon
  • 1 tablespoon peanut oil or other mild-flavored vegetable oil
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • Kosher salt and fresh cracked black pepper

Directions

Heat a large skillet over medium heat.  Once the skillet is hot, add the bacon and cook until most of the fat has rendered out and the bacon is crispy.  Remove the bacon and allow the bacon to drain on paper towels, set aside for later, and crumble once cool.

Drain off all but one tablespoon of bacon fat from the skillet, and add the peanut oil to the remaining bacon fat and turn the heat to medium/medium high.  Once the skillet has had time to reheat, add the Brussels sprouts and toss to coat with oil, then season with salt and pepper.  Sauté the sprouts for about 10-15 minutes or until the sprouts are tender and caramelized, stirring occasionally.

Deglaze the pan with the red wine vinegar, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to get up the caramelized bits of Brussels sprouts and any bacon scraps left on the bottom of the pan.  Taste one of the sprouts to check the seasoning level, then adjust as necessary with salt and pepper (although remember, you will be adding bacon and bleu cheese and thus more salt).  Add the crumbled bacon and stir.  Add the bleu cheese, stirring briefly to coat the sprouts in the melting cheese, then immediately remove the sprouts from the pan.  Serve hot or at room temperature.

Dessert: Chocolate Cream Scones

(Taken from The Art and Soul of Baking7)

Scones as we’ve become used to experiencing them are a completely different beast from those made at home.  They’re dense, greasy, and typically more than I could ever eat at a sitting.  These fast, easy-to-make scones are light and airy, and contain that quintessential Valentines’ Day ingredient – chocolate!

Since they are typically cut into wedges, it’s simple to produce heart-shaped scones for Valentines’ Day by slightly adjusting the shape of the wedge.  To produce 8 hearts I separated the dough into two disks rather than working with one.

Ingredients

  • 1 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
  • 1/3 cup + 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 stick cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 1 cup chilled heavy whipping cream
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 1 tablespoon refined sugar or 2 tablespoons turbinado or raw sugar

Directions

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees and position an oven rack in the center.  Line the baking sheet with parchment paper or a thin silicone mat.

Place the flour, cocoa, sugar, baking powder, and salt in the bowl of a food processor or a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and process for 10 seconds to blend well.  Add the cold butter pieces and pulse 5 times at 1-second intervals, or until the butter is cut into medium pieces.  Add the cream and pulse another 20 times, or until the dough holds together in small, thick clumps.  Use a spatula to scrape the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface, and gently squeeze the clumps together until they form a cohesive dough.

Pat the dough into a circle 7 inches in diameter and about 1 inch thick (for smaller portions, as above, cut the dough in half and pat into two smaller circles about 1 inch thick).  Use a chef’s knife to cut the dough into 8 equal wedges and transfer to the prepared baking sheet, spacing them about 2 inches apart.

Brush the tops with a thin coating of the lightly beaten egg (you will not use all the egg; store the remainder in the fridge to add to scrambled eggs or for future baking projects).  Sprinkle the scones evenly with the sugar.  Bake for 14 to 16 minutes, until firm to the touch and golden brown.  Transfer to a rack and let cool for 5 minutes.  Serve the scones warm or at room temperature.

References

1. Brogham, R., 2012.  “This Valentine’s Day, say it with chocolate.”  Accessed online at http://www.petoskeynews.com/news/featured/pnr-this-valentines-day-say-it-with-chocolate-20120210,0,5694455.story

2. Jones, S.M., 2011.  “Jewelry sales sparkling again in time for Valentine’s Day.”  L.A. Times, February 12, 2011.  Retrieved online from http://articles.latimes.com/2011/feb/11/business/la-fi-jewelry-sales-20110211

3. Glassner, B.  2007.  The Gospel of Food: Why We Should Stop Worrying and Enjoy What We Eat.  New York: Harper Collins.

4. Pillsbury, R.  1998.  No Foreign Food: The American Diet in Time and Place.  Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

5. Nestle, M.  2006.  What to Eat.  New York: North Point Press.

6. Rule, D. C., K. S. Brought on, S. M. Shellito, and G. Maiorano, 2002.  “Comparison of Muscle Fatty Acid Profiles and Cholesterol Concentrations of Bison, Beef Cattle, Elk, and Chicken.” Journal of Animal  Science 80(5): 1202-11.

7.  Mushet, C.  2008.  The Art and Soul of Baking.  Kansas City, Missouri: Andrews McMeel Publishing.

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